“Mañana, mañana.” That’s what a group of more than 900 Jewish people fleeing Nazi Germany were told when their ship docked in Havana, Cuba in May 1939. But that tomorrow never came. Most of the passengers on the MS St. Louis was turned away because they had been sold fake visas by a corrupt Cuban official.
As their ship turned back towards Europe, passengers could see the glittering lights of Miami . Some of them even cabled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt begging to be allowed entry into the United States, but they were forced to return to Europe where 254 of them were eventually killed in the Holocaust.
Security concerns — not unlike those raised by a majority of governors with regard to Syrian refugees — were among the chief reasons that the desperate refugees were denied safe haven in the U.S., according to American University history professor Max Paul Friedman.
Those fears were not just exaggerated, but fueled by xenophobia and concerns over the economic impact that letting in refugees would have during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, he told ThinkProgress in an interview.
Just as political figures warn of ISIS fighters slipping into the U.S. by posing as Syrian refugees, many top U.S. officials at the time warned that “Nazi agents” would infiltrate the country by posing as Jewish refugees.
The fear was one that President Roosevelt offered further credence to a year after the MS St. Louis incident.
“At a press conference on June 5, 1940, FDR himself warned that ‘among the refugees there are some spies, as has been found in other countries,’ explaining that ‘especially Jewish refugees’ could be coerced to report to German agents under the threat that if they did not do so, ‘we are frightfully sorry, but your old father and mother will be taken out and shot,” Friedman wrote in his book Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II.
“The State Department cooperated in preparing a Saturday Evening Post article warning the public that ‘disguised as refugees, Nazi agents have penetrated all over the world, as spies, fifth columnists, propagandists, or secret commercial agents,’” he wrote.
“I think the fear was genuine, but misplaced,” Friedman said. “That is, none of the Jewish refugees who arrived in the United States has ever been found to have done anything in the interest of the Nazis. They fled them. They didn’t want to help them.”
That’s the same argument that immigration experts — and Syrian refugees themselves — have made in regards to ISIS.
Members of Jewish organizations in the United States and even some Congressmen did advocate for an exception that would have allowed the MS St. Louis’ passengers to live in the U.S. until their visas were processed, but no such exception was made, in part, because thousands of German Jews were already on waitlists to enter the U.S.
They were desperate to flee the system of segregation and increasingly tense situation in Germany, but the worst was yet to come.
“We’re talking about May 1939,” Friedman said. “There’s no war yet. There’s no Holocaust yet, per se.”
But Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass” when Jewish-owned business and houses of worship were destroyed had already taken place. As the vitriol against Jews spread, up to 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps, which, Friedman noted, were not yet used for mass killing.
“People sometimes mix up the chronology and they think, ‘[Hitler] was gassing millions of Jews and he wouldn’t let the ship in,’ but that hadn’t started yet and nobody knew that it was going to happen,” he said.
The scale of the violence perpetrated by Nazis in May 1939 was far less than that which has been carried out by ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
“There had been persecution of the Jews in Germany [by mid-1939],” Friedman said, “But think about what the level of the persecution of the Jews [at that time] was, and then think about what’s happening in Syria [now].”
Nearly a quarter million people, including nearly 12,000 children, have been killed in Syria since conflict broke out there four years ago, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But, Friedman said, the question of whether or not to accept refugees into the United States has never been based on humanitarian concerns alone.
“The issue of accepting refugees has always been politicized,” he told ThinkProgress. “The most amount of support for refugees has been when the fact of their suffering at the hands of a foreign government aligns with a narrative we have about that government being our enemy.”
While American forces are engaged in a military operation against ISIS, it’s not the sort of all-out war that the U.S. eventually declared on Hitler. During the Cold War, for example, a disproportionately high number of refugees from Soviet-aligned countries were allowed to enter the U.S. — even though some from other countries faced far worse threats.
In addition to that, Friedman said, “We have a very long tradition of exaggerating the threat that refugees might pose. Just as we didn’t have a single case of a Jew working for the Nazis who was admitted into the United States, it would be very difficult for a Syrian sleeper agent for ISIS to make it through a two-year process of being vetted and being interviewed and having to explain themselves.”
Public opinion hasn’t shifted much. More than 60 percent of Americans polled in 1939 opposed resettling 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children in the U.S. Just over half of Americans believe that the U.S. should accept more Syrian refugees, according to a September poll conducted by Pew.